We started a new camp, and we didn't bring Progressive Programming. Here's how we keep things fresh.

As many of you know, a few of us here at GCP are in the process of launching a brand new summer camp program called the Stomping Ground. One of the neat things about starting a brand new camp (as opposed to taking over a camp, or growing up at a camp) is that you get to start with a totally clean slate. New name, new location, new philosophy, new programming.

There’s no “that’s the way we’ve always done it,” and no inherited baggage from previous administrations.

There are also no campers. It’s pretty scary. Most of the conversations we wind up having are surrounding how, exactly, we’re going to convince people to come to a brand new camp. And when they get there, how we’ll get them to stay.

Now, one of the most popular methods to increase camper retention since I’ve gotten involved in the summer camping industry is progressive programming. The formula behind progressive programming is usually as follows:

Kid comes to camp – there are certain things he can do at camp – there are certain things he needs to wait to do at camp until he’s older – he comes back in the future to do those things he didn’t use to be able to do.

For starters, we believe that this formula likely works. But we decided to structure our camp without any progressive programming whatsoever. Let’s dive in to why.

First, a brief disclaimer. The unstated first goal of every organization is to be around next year. To that end, I’d never begrudge any organization doing what they needed to do to get the campers they needed to continue to do their important work.

For us, though, we wanted to see if we could create a summer camp environment where retaining campers from year to year was a happy byproduct of the fact that we were giving kids an incredible time – not something that happened because we manipulated our programmatic offerings to increase its likelihood.

The problem, for us, is in this step of the progressive programming formula:

there are certain things he needs to wait to do at camp until he’s older – he comes back in the future to those things he didn’t used to be able to do.

I don’t want to overstate this, but the reasons kids come back in the future is sort of the heart of every single thing we’re doing at camp. As an industry, we talk all the time about how we’re “more than just a good time” or how “camp really happens in the connections and friendships, not the activities.”

When push comes to shove, don’t we want kids to come back to camp due to the reasons we think camp is so beneficial? In a world that’s constantly implying that kids aren’t ready to do the things they want to do, that constantly makes them put off pursuing what truly interests them, is there a way that we as camps can be a place apart from all of that? Those were the questions we asked ourselves.

We’re also realists, though. We know that some percentage of kids and parents will start to fatigue on camp if they believe that it’s the “same thing every year.”

The big question becomes: How can we acknowledge the financial reality of needing retention while not creating artificial scarcity?

Because again, there’s nothing wrong with kids wanting to come to camp for sweet programming. It can help campers share their experience of camp more easily (they don't have to say it changed their lives - they can just say they played a great night game). It can form firm memories to ground the “good feelings” of camp within.

To that end, we’ve taken two major steps:

1) Put programming in the hands of the campers and seasonal staff. 2) Develop a culture where programmatic additions happen every year.

Put programming in the hands of campers and seasonal staff

kids in some woods
kids in some woods

The cool thing about turning over programming to kids and summer staff people is that, almost no matter what, the bunch of them will be able to come up with fresh ideas more rapidly than even the most dedicated year round staff, if only due to the sheer number of them.

There were two major things we did to incorporate staff & camper ideas.

DreamWorld Week

In the ongoing quest to find something resembling a fresh theme for a week of summer camp, we developed “Dreamworld Week.” The idea was simple – we’d set aside the few hundred dollars we would spend on programming for that week until the week itself began. On the first night of the session, we gathered all of the campers together, and asked them to write down three things they hoped to do at camp during the week.

We instructed them to write 1 pretty normal activity, 1 more outlandish activity (like, the foot Olympics), and 1 “reach” activity (like, going to the moon).

Afterward, our programming staff & our leaders in training put in a long night brainstorming on how we’ll help make these dreams happen – both when they’ll be run, who will run them, and what sort of supplies will be needed. Obviously, we never take anyone to the moon – but decorating a cabin like one is on the moon can go a long way! I’d give you some examples, here, but kids are so darn good at coming up with phenomenal ideas that I doubt you’ll need them!

Dreamworld week went so well, that we now do it for every single week of camp. Because, why not? It's logistically hairy at first, but once we got the hang of it, it just became part of our routine.

Jack & Laura made a great video about incorporating the Dreamworld Framework at your camp that visually describes how we put this into practice.

Camper led activity sheets

I’ve written about these before, but the idea here is very simple. We post little sign up sheets around our dining hall. A camper writes his/her name at the top, and what the name of the activity is. There’s a spot for a staff member sponsor (which is optional). Then, other kids can sign up below. If 5 other participants sign up, we know we can meet our staff/camper ratios, and we help brainstorm with that child how the activity will go.

Camper led activity sheets led to one of our most “famous” activities ever, where a 12 year old camper named Sean took a couple dozen kids to the other side of our lake to hunt for velociraptors. Meanwhile, another huge group of campers went to the other side to pretend to be the “natives” of camp, and surprised them with song and dance. A phenomenal time, a lifelong memory – and it all came from the mind of a camper and our willingness to say “yes!”

Developing a culture where programmatic additions happen every year

Now, this sounds fairly intimidating at first. A lot of people hear “add a new program area!” and they start thinking “Add a new high ropes course? Add a new glass blowing studio? Pshaw! Rich camps only!”

But adding new programming absolutely does not have to be prohibitively expensive. There are a couple main things we try to do to keep programming fresh every single year.

Add new evening programs/all camp games

summer camp game
summer camp game

Here we’ll turn to the industry leader in fresh, imaginative, and immersive games - Camp Augusta. The first time I spoke with Randy on the phone, he told me they had an institutional goal to have no camper ever repeat a single all camp game during their tenure at camp. For them, that means waiting 7 years before playing the same game twice.

It sounds crazy, right? Well, not if it becomes a non-negotiable part of your camp’s culture. Augusta utilizes their staff members in a way I haven’t heard about elsewhere. They actually pay their staff members for each game that is submitted that actually comes to life during a summer camp session. A few dedicated year round staff work with past and present seasonal staff to craft fantastic, new games each year. Then, those games are iterated upon throughout the summer until they are finally shelved for their 7 year hiatus.

Paying the staff members for their help obviously is a bit of an expense, but when the result is never having to repeat plot-driven games, and getting big time buy-in from camp and staff, the money works itself out easily.

Just ask yourself this question: If we had 5 new games at camp this summer, would that get us 2 or more campers for future summers? If the answer is “yes,” you can be pretty sure that investing in new games would be a winner for your camp. Kids will want to come back every summer to experience the new games that you haven’t yet created, not just to play the games that they never had access to because they weren’t quite old enough.

Adding new program areas

We also try to add new program areas each year, though these almost always have at least some expense involved. Here are some cheap ones that we’ve added recently (or will be adding soon). We were able to add all of these for less than $200.

  1. A Hammock area for just hanging out. Many older kids just want to hang out, anyway. Creating an intentional space for hanging out honors their desires.
  2. A “Construction Area” where we just let kids dig the heck out of the place with real life garden tools, build with PVC pipe and connectors, etc).
  3. A 400 square foot sand box with 2 hoses & a robust beach toy collection.
  4. Another gaga pit at camp – bonus points if it’s somewhere where people are often waiting around (perhaps for the next swimming session to start?)
  5. A garden (local nurseries and greenhouses can get a write-off for donating to you, if you’re a non-profit!)
  6. A rock throwing range - we tied up old pots and pans from from 4x4s and let the rocks fly!

Let’s be better every year

That’s all I’m saying. Of course, some progression through your programming might be necessary. You probably don’t want 5 year olds using blow-torches, or whatever. Small kids don’t always have a lot of success in paddling canoes by themselves. You don’t have to make every single activity available to every kid every single year.

But me? I’ll never forget an 8 year old being heartbroken when he came on a retreat and was able to use the high ropes course. He couldn't figure out why his trusted counselors told him he couldn't use it for safety reasons one month, but that it was somehow safe in October.

When we shift the discussion away from “Which activities should we reserve just for older kids?” and to “how can we make this summer new and different for everyone?” we get our minds into the headspace that makes working in camp so exciting.

So, let’s do this! More and better programming at all camps this summer. If you have a great, cheap programming idea – list it in the comments below and I’ll amend this post to add it to my list!